Reader alert: This is no awesome column

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Today's subject is awesome, and if that isn't enough to make you interested, I don't know what I can do except to introduce nudity into the discussion. So today I will strip away all false notions and reveal the bare essentials of awesome.

It was my friend Kit who asked me to write an awesome column. The suggestion hurt my feelings at first because surely all my columns are impressive in their own way.

But then I realized that the common understanding of what constitutes an awesome column is not what Kit meant.

No, he wanted me to write a column denouncing the casual use of the word awesome, which he says has reached epidemic proportions, especially among the young.

This is true. We live in an age where everything is described as awesome. You are awesome. He is awesome. She is awesome. The food is awesome. The day is awesome. The beach is awesome. The only variation to this steady diet of awesome is when something is described as totally awesome.

As awesome means inspiring awe, we must go to the definition of awe to get to the bottom of the awesome misuse controversy. Awe is "a mixed feeling of reverence, fear and wonder caused by something majestic, sublime, sacred etc.," according to the law of words in the holy Book of Webster.

It follows that an authentic awesome experience might be standing in the presence of the Almighty or watching a volcano in full eruption. As Kit notes, awesome is not putting onions on a hamburger. That's just tasty.

He feels so strongly about this that every time he hears the word awesome in the wrong context he says he becomes nauseated -- or barfsome, if you will pardon the expression. This is a severe reaction, but Kit is a writer and a connoisseur of words.

Before he is dismissed as a crank journalist like myself, you should know that Kit is retired after a career working in public relations for large corporations. Now, I am not one to look down on any in the scribbling arts. We are all fellow toilers in the literary vineyards, and all of us have a proprietary interest in words.

Journalists require just the right words to describe the largest pumpkin in the county fair and also to defend truth, justice and the American way. For their part, corporate PR people need precise words to defend indefensible corporate goals and grind the faces of the poor. Even bloggers must respect words, or else they are just people who write in their pajamas way too much.

And when words lose their original meanings, when words are made meaningless by trivial repetition, no words are left to describe the horror, except to say that it's the worst darn thing. Such is the danger of eradicating the awe in awesome.

There are other examples of words so denuded. As someone else will mention it if I don't, this happened to the word "gay," which meant one thing and now means another. I totally understand why, and in that singular case I forgive the grafting of another meaning onto the original.

In the old days, all the words used to describe homosexuals -- itself a graceless word -- were varying degrees of vile. Gay people wanted to adopt something sunnier. They took over gay, and the takeover was complete. Fair enough.

But a price was paid. We now have no word to describe anyone who resembles a jolly Victorian eccentric, wearing a straw hat or a bow tie and having a merry old time on an old-fashioned bicycle. "Twit" doesn't quite cover it.

However, I do think we should draw the line on the misuse of awesome if only to have something meaningful to say when we are in heaven -- a long shot in my case -- or in close proximity to an active lava field.

Kit feels so strongly about people who say "awesome" in unawesome circumstances that he tells them that every time they say the word a puppy dies. This is a bad thought, but he is not threatening puppycide -- he is trying to shock people into better linguistic behavior.

But there's a logical problem with this. If the utterance of awesome is fatal to puppies, then kittens are also in peril, but he can't say that because his name is Kit. Clearly, the whole thing is suspect, but pet lovers should probably err on the side of caution just in case.

So next time people say something is awesome when it isn't, please correct them. Not to backslide, but I do think beaches are awesome, especially when the surf is up.

reghenry

Reg Henry: rhenry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1668.


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